Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Rifle in hand, Albuquerque police officer Mikal Monette hiked up the hill to where a homeless camper was reported to be brandishing knives on March 16, 2014.
For nearly an hour, Monette treated James Boyd like a new-found friend, engaging the mentally ill man in topics that ranged from Playstation games to Scientology to asking if Boyd was hungry, according to a videotape of the police encounter.
“Right now, I can guarantee your safety as long as you just put the knives down and let us talk to you,” Monette told Boyd, as the number of police officers at the scene began to grow.
“Can we go to a hotel or Denny’s?” Boyd asked.
“I’ll buy you Denny’s,” Monette offered. “All you gotta do is … don’t have anything in your hands, and we’ll get it done. Keep your hands out of your pockets because we get a little nervous when people put their hands in their pockets.”
Monette was one of the first APD officers to arrive on the scene after Open Space officers failed in their attempts to get Boyd to leave, noticed he had knives, and called APD.
The psychological fallout from what happened that day nearly ended Monette’s police career.
Assigned to Foothills patrol, Monette had additional training to be certified in crisis intervention.
His low-key conversation with Boyd that afternoon seemed to be working, Monette later told Internal Affairs investigators. Boyd at one point agreed to take his hands out of his pants pockets. But the volatile 38-year-old continued to resist as additional police officers joined the effort to talk him down.
“We’re in a situation right now,” Boyd said. “I can’t walk away. You can’t walk away.”
Monette backed down the hill when APD tactical officers arrived. Before nightfall, they had fatally shot Boyd six times.
Two of them were later charged with second-degree murder and other lesser charges.
They contended that the shooting was justified because Boyd had threatened a police K-9 officer with a knife. Prosecutors say Boyd was surrendering when he was shot in the back.
The Boyd case was “but one critical incident” to which Monette responded in early 2014, incidents in which Monette tried to de-escalate situations that ended in violence and death, according to his Albuquerque attorney Rachel E. Higgins.
But after the Boyd shooting, his exemplary five-year-career took a nosedive.
Monette failed to qualify at a rifle qualifications course. Colleagues noticed he seemed sleep-deprived and stressed. He got into trouble when a woman he knew complained to APD that he was sending her unwanted, inappropriate text messages.
While on administrative leave, he wouldn’t respond when supervisors tried to contact him. After Monette finally met with them, they ordered him drug-tested. The results were negative. Monette decided to seek treatment and counseling.
By February 2015, Monette was fired for bringing a personal firearm to a light-duty work assignment. He said he didn’t know that was prohibited and “placed (the weapon) in his vehicle without incident,” his attorney said in a filing for his appeal.
The city contended that Monette’s mental health wasn’t relevant to the misconduct.
But earlier this year, city officials rescinded his termination.
Monette, a former Cibola High School basketball star who played basketball for the University of New Mexico Lobos, won a reprieve on the eve of a hearing on his appeal. He received $13,700 in back sick pay and now has until Sept. 1 to deal with what his doctors say is post-traumatic stress. If he hasn’t received medical clearance to return by then, he will be terminated.
His current status is called “physical layoff,” a form of unpaid leave.
“The City determined it was the best course of action to enter into a settlement agreement allowing Mr. Monette to be placed into physical layoff for a short period of time. Through this agreement, the City was able to require that Mr. Monette present clearance from both his personal physician and a City physician before he could return to work as an APD officer,” said City Attorney Jessica Hernandez, through a spokeswoman. She said the city wanted to ensure that his return would be “in the safest possible manner for Mr. Monette and members of the public.”
Monette, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story. The attorney wouldn’t discuss the Boyd case or whether Monette wanted to return to crisis intervention police work.
But she said she hopes APD acknowledges the need to support officers “who are having a crisis.”
“I would venture to say that most law enforcement agencies have a blind spot when it comes to helping their own who have mental health-related issues,” Higgins said.
“Crisis intervention officers like Mikal Monette are responsible for resolving high-stress, critical incidents at low level of conflict, and that’s a lot of work,” she added. “It takes a lot more work to police with your mind and your heart than it does to police with a gun and a Taser.”
‘Kicked to the curb’
Shortly after the Boyd shooting, Monette’s parents noticed their son, now 32, changed in appearance and behavior.
“They felt that, instead of helping their son, the Albuquerque Police Department used him up and kicked him to the curb,” wrote David Linthicum, a state Law Enforcement Academy Board hearing officer, in a report last July.
After firing Monette, APD filed a notice with the state that could have led to the revocation of his police officer certification.
But Lithicum and the state Law Enforcement Academy Board found no grounds to do so.
According to Lithicum’s findings, Monette revealed he was “suffering from some type of post-traumatic stress disorder, due to his involvement with the Boyd incident.”
Montette’s attorney planned to call an APD psychologist to testify in the appeal of Monette’s termination.
That psychologist would have testified that Monette told him he “felt he did everything he could to help Mr. Boyd and to avoid the outcome that occurred, and that he was bothered by the event and its portrayal in the media,” according to a filing in the appeal by Monette’s attorney.
According to an APD audio recording, Monette told Internal Affairs he didn’t see the shooting but heard the police flash bang grenade and the volley of gunfire when Boyd was shot.
He was asked to help search Boyd’s bleeding, handcuffed body for weapons – and found another knife in his waistband.
Then Monette was assigned to ride with Boyd in the ambulance to University Hospital, where Boyd died the next morning.
Last year, the city settled a civil wrongful death lawsuit with Boyd’s family for $5 million.
The lawsuit said Boyd was suffering paranoid delusion and alleged that APD has allowed a pattern and practice of unnecessarily escalating the use of force against mentally ill and homeless persons, including unlawfully shooting and killing them.
That allegation was echoed in a 2014 report issued after an investigation of the APD by the U.S. Department of Justice. The APD is instituting reforms under a consent agreement with the DOJ.